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Sierra hitting .163, losing grip on cleanup job

March 20, 1997

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) _ The last two teams that had Ruben Sierra gave up on him. With only 10 days left in training camp, he’s done little to impress his latest employer.

Projected as the Cincinnati Reds’ left fielder and cleanup hitter, Sierra is batting only .163 with a pair of homers and six RBIs in 16 games this spring. Although the Reds insist he will come around, manager Ray Knight has quietly dropped him in the batting order to see how others fare in the No. 4 spot.

Knight pauses to find the right words when asked about Sierra’s performance.

``I guess I would have to say fairly that there’s still some question there with Ruben, just based upon what we’ve seen this spring,″ Knight said.

``My gut feeling tells me he’s going to be fine. And that’s based upon other people that have scouted him and watched him play, their feeling about him offensively. And still being young, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t still hit.″

For whatever reasons, Sierra’s output has declined the last few years. He bottomed out in 1996, when he hit .258 with the New York Yankees and .222 for Detroit. Overall, he had only 12 homers in 142 games last season.

There were several explanations: Sierra didn’t like being a designated hitter; years of weight lifting made him too bulky. He cut back on the weight lifting over the winter and went to a league where he’d do more than just bat. Neither change has worked so far.

Sierra, 31, says he usually struggles in spring training, so there’s no reason to be alarmed.

``When the season starts, things are going to be different,″ he said.

The Reds took a low-risk gamble in acquiring Sierra for two minor leaguers. The Tigers were so eager to get rid of him, they agreed to pay most of his $5.5 million salary. Even if Sierra flops, the Reds will be out only $625,000.

They figured Sierra would have extra motivation because he’s in the final year of his contract. Sierra said he hasn’t thought about that.

``All I’m thinking about is playing hard for this team,″ he said. ``It’s got a lot of good talent. It can go all the way.″

Yankees manager Joe Torre found Sierra difficult to deal with. Knight hasn’t had any problems.

``Ruben’s worked hard,″ Knight said. ``That’s all I ever ask of any player. He’s been a very positive addition to our ballclub.

``He hasn’t caused one problem. He hasn’t moped. He hasn’t complained. He’s done all the work. He’s run every ball out. He just hasn’t swung the bat yet left-handed. He’s hit the ball hard right-handed and looks good right-handed.″

He’s been given plenty of opportunity to pull out of his slump. His 49 spring at-bats ranked third on the club.

Knight is looking at his options as the regular season approaches. In the Reds’ last two games, he has dropped Sierra lower in the batting order so he could see how Willie Greene and Reggie Sanders look in the cleanup spot.

``Had Ruben swung the bat well, we would have stayed with him right there,″ Knight said. ``But I just want to see how Willie and Reggie handle the fourth and fifth spots.″

Tuesday night against Cleveland, Sierra batted sixth and went 0-for-3 with a strikeout and a double-play grounder _ the only Reds starter who failed to get at least one hit. On Wednesday, he batted sixth again and went 1-for-4 with a solo homer from the left side.

``I’m going to be ready for sure,″ he said. ``I know I’ve been hitting some balls good, but they’ve been caught.″

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